Wednesday 13 May 2020

Films From FrightFest 2019 #8: Reviews of The Sonata (France/UK/Russia/Latvia 2018), Eat Brains Love (USA 2019), Dark Light (USA 2019), Sadistic Intentions (USA 2018), The Wretched (USA 2019) and The Perished (Ireland 2019)

It's touch and go whether FrightFest will take place this year, but no matter, because I'm still catching up on the films that played at last year's festival. A mixed bag this time round, and I'd have been disappointed if I'd chosen to get a ticket for most of them.

The Sonata (France/UK/Russia/Latvia 2018: Dir Andrew Desmond) If indeed the devil has all the finest tunes, you can also use them to summon him. That's the premise in this very gothic confection with a big dollop of Euro pudding.

Talented violinist Freya Tingley (Rose Fisher) inherits a rambling turreted mansion in France, on the death of her long lost composer father Richard Marlowe (Rutger Hauer) who, we see in a prologue, has expired by setting fire to himself. Her brusque manager Charles (Simon Abkarian), who's clearly a wrong 'un, is keen to maintain his preofessional attachment to Rose, who feels that she's outgrown him.

When Rose installs herself in the mansion, she discovers the sheet music for a sonata, her father's last work, presumed unfinished. The music is punctuated with red symbols, hinting at some arcane code. Are they there to stop the music performed or do they serve a more dangerous purpose? As Rose and Charles gradually solve the clues to the symbols on the score, she learns of their origin: a sect who believed that some pieces of music are able to open the portal to other worlds, and even communicate with the Antichrist, and of the horrors that her father perpetrated in service of the devil's music.

The almost otherwordly Latvian locations of Desmond's debut feature do much to give the film a fairytale feel, and it's probably the best way to view the movie. Its quaint, vaguely Lovecraftian plot, sequences of our tortured heroine descending stone staircases in a diaphanous nightgown, ghost children and disconcerting dream sequences all place The Sonata in the category of old school gothic horror, heightened by Alexis Maingaud's lush score, all rising strings and trilling flutes. To be fair there's not much to this, but the style over substance accusation is abated by the trickiness of the clues, some nasty although not overdone touches, a rousing finale and a running time that doesn't outstay its welcome.

Eat Brains Love (USA 2019: Dir Rodman Flender) A peppy zom-rom-com, underneath the gore and the gags this is a rather old fashioned - and faintly sexist - tale of a guy torn between brains and beauty (the cinematic take on this being that both are beautiful in different ways), although one's a psychic and the other's a zombie.

A flashback-y introduction has Jake (Jake Cannavale), a no hope student, making the unlikeliest of couples with cheerleader Amanda (Angelique Riviera). The reason? There's been a zombie outbreak, and both have been bitten, respectively by regrettable sexual partners, the transference of the virus being linked to, well, sex. Jake can't believe his luck that the class hottie has finally acknowledged him, even if their friendship has been achieved by chowing down on the rest of their class.

And now Jake and Amanda are on the run, being tracked down by representatives from a government agency (who call the infected 'necros'), including a trained psychic, Ripley-from-Alien-a-like Cass (Sarah Yarkin), who is able to project herself into other's minds. After spending some time in Jake's, a form of attraction begins, at the same time as Cass begins to question the motives of her boss. Of course the pair have to eat and, in one of the film's funnier plot points, map out their meals by using a guide which plots the locations of people who have fallen foul of the law.

In true modern comedy horror style the gags in Eat Brains Love come thick and fast; most raise a wry smile but rarely a belly laugh. As well as the rather outmoded two gals and one guy scenario, there are also a couple of lesbian characters who are written from a (jock) male perspective, and after a while I began to think this felt like a zombie version of 1978's Lemon Popsicle, and missed the smarts of something like either of the Zombieland movies.

Eat Brains Love would probably work better as a crowd movie than a lone viewing experience (which is how I watched it); its gory set pieces are perfect for a beer and popcorn audience. At times it zips along but for large parts the movie feels a bit baggy, with smart lines and little else. OK but overfamiliar fare.

Dark Light (USA 2019: Dir Padraig Reynolds) Annie (Jessica Madsen) retreats to her late mother's house amid the flat cornfields of mid America, to escape a failing marriage. With her is daughter Emily (Opal Littleton). It's the house in which Annie grew up, but the peace is only temporary: husband Paul turns up (Ed Brody) to remind Annie that it was her poor mental health that led him to have an extra marital affair: "I'm sorry you're back here again," he tells her.

But Annie's anxieties seem to have a physical form, in the shape of a figure - or figures - glimpsed in the house and the cornfields. She ropes in the local sheriff (Kristina Clifford) who is as disbelieving of the perceived threat as her husband.

But, as we have seen in the film's prologue, the danger is real, and has kidnapped her daughter. Annie, under threat, mistakenly shoots her husband and is arrested for the crime. She is taken into custody but manages to escape when the police van in which she is being transported crashes. Annie must then face down her inner demons, and the exterior ones too, to get her daughter back.

Dark Light plays like an extended episode of The X Files, and the explanation for the figures - indigenous life forms driven into hiding - struggles to make a political point but really becomes just another creature feature with a lot of wandering around, flashlights shining in the darkness. Admittedly the rather strange creature designs are effective when glimpsed sparingly, but their impact fades with overexposure; they're still men in suits with TV screens for heads.

Reynolds has a track record of making low budget horror films which attempt something higher than their premise, and Dark Light is more of the same; explanations are in short supply and characters are sketched in rather than fully formed. Ultimately this is a bit of a trudge, and some last reel excitement can't really compensate for the rather pedestrian nature of the bulk of the film.

Sadistic Intentions (USA 2018: Dir Eric Pennycoff) Pennycoff's first feature is a real mixed bag, partly explained by the fact that the script changed completely after the actors had been cast and the single location was found.

Chloe (Taylor Zaudtke) and Stu (Jeremy Gardner), both unknown to each other, are separately invited to meet up with Kevin (Michael Patrick Nicholson), who is respectively Chloe's dealer and Stu's fellow death metal band member. We already know from a rather confusing opening scene that Kevin has blood on his hands - seemingly the slaughter of an entire family (his own? We probably do need to talk about Kevin then) - so when the pair show up at the house, it's surprising that Kevin isn't home. Or is he?

Chloe and Stu gradually get to know each other, and a growing friendship blossoms, fuelled by Chloe's weed consumption. Stu remains the rather taciturn band member. He plays a full-on track by his group, called 'Morbid Annihilator', but feels that their music is just not extreme enough: Chloe counters this by choosing some of her favourite soft rock off the internet, and asks Stu to dance ("I'd rather die in a fucking house fire," he responds), but shows some signs of thawing when Stu invites Chloe into the garden for some death metal screaming (intentionally or not this scene reminded me of Liza Minnelli and Michael York under the railway arches in 1972's Cabaret).

But around half way through the movie the whole thing gets turned on its head when Kevin arrives: the slaughter we saw at the beginning of the movie was real, and Stu's mate is now a fully fledged psychopath, who feels that their latest recording session could be significantly pepped up with some more human sacrifice.

In interviews both Pennycoff and his stars want the audience's takeaway from their film to be an investment in the characters. And while it's true that the director spends some time fleshing out Chloe and Stu's stories, in the accurately faltering way of an opposites attract couple getting to know each other for the first time, that doesn't count for much when those same characters start acting contra to what we expect in the rather draggy second half.

Sadistic Intentions is probably best seen as a three hander extended ode to how rubbish men are; for different reasons Stu and Kevin are not keepers. It has its moments, but the thriller/ horror movie elements come off like a luke warm rehash of the last couple of reels of Scream (1996), and not very successfully.

The Wretched (USA 2019: Dir Brett Pierce, Drew T. Pierce) On the surface The Wretched could be seen as just another YA folk-horroresque fright flick. Its central character is a young guy, Ben (John-Paul Howard), who arrives to spend the summer working at dad's marina. His parents are separated, and Ben's been getting into a little trouble back home (his arm is in a cast as the result of a little breaking and entering). It's hoped some time with dad will put him right.

But any hope of a reconciliation between the parents now seems unlikely, as dad Liam (Jamison Jones) has met a new woman, Sara (Azie Tesfai), to whom Ben does not warm. Ben too meets someone, the rather sweet and down to earth Mallory (Piper Curda) but louses that up at a party when first he gets caught with someone else and then throws up all over her.

But when a family move into the holiday rental next door to Liam's home, Ben begins to suspect things aren't right. The mum of the family, Abbie (Zarah Mahler), brings roadkill deer home and guts it. Later a strange figure emerges from the deer's body - has it been hiding there? And when Ben comes home one day to find the Abbie's son hiding in his house, scared of his mother, he decides to investigate further.

So far, so PG-13. And while The Wretched isn't loaded with gore, it doesn't need to be. There is a real sense of unease created by the odd goings on circling around Ben. And the heart of the movie - the story of the dark mother, 'born from rock, root and tree' who 'feasts on the forgotten' - is genuinely unsettling: an entity who has the ability to make people forget their loved ones is a subtle take on the usual 'being in the woods' story. This adds a supernatural twist to what would otherwise seem like normal events. Who can say whether Liam's careful folding of a family photograph to exclude his wife is simply moving on with his own, or something more sinister? It's quite an Invasion of the Bodysnatchers approach to things, and works effectively for the same reason; normal people acting in a way that seems normal and yet...isn't. There's also an off 1980s feel to the whole thing: while the prologue is set 35 years previously, time doesn't seem to have moved on much in that part of the woods. The Wretched is an excellent little film, well acted and effective in subverting viewers' expectations. It's well worth 90 minutes of your time.

The Perished (Ireland 2019: Dir Paddy Murphy) The haunted history of Ireland's Magdalene laundries - hostels for unmarried mothers and their children which functioned as little more than workhouses, and where the women's children often met early deaths, possibly at the hands of the people running the institutions - permeates writer/director Murphy's brooding and grim latest feature.

Sarah (Courtney McKeon, excellent) falls pregnant by her boyfriend Shane (Fiach Kunz) but before she can tell him, he breaks up with her. Unable to obtain an abortion in Ireland, she flees the tyranny of her religious mother Elaine (Noelle Clarke) and supportive but downtrodden father Richard (Conor Lambert) and travels to England to undergo the procedure.

Returning to Ireland she holes up with her best friend, gay Davet (Paul Fitzgerald) in his parents' large house. But Sarah, who hasn't always been the strongest of people - as evidenced by Shane's sister Rebecca (Lisa Tyrell) reminding him of Sarah's examples of flakiness - is clearly incapacitated by guilt over the abortion, even though she knew she had no choice, and failing to discuss the issue with Shane first.

But what Sarah doesn't know is that the property in which she's staying was formerly a Magdalene house, and the spirits of the dead children - embodied in a strange stripped-flesh half human creature, initially crying in the darkness but then emerging from the shadows - want to reach out to Sarah.

While by no means perfect, what I admired about The Perished was, firstly, that it refused to become just another creature feature. The drama of the film's first two thirds is not sacrificed for a final reel gross out. The second thing is the ambiguity of the piece. Other films on the same subject have located themselves in the past, as if almost to say that history couldn't repeat itself. But in the very believable character of Sarah's mother Elaine is the contemporary reality of the use of religious judgement in a harmful way. It's also a film which doesn't show Sarah to be without fault: someone who, despite making her own choices, is left with guilt for what she's done. The 'monster' element was for me the least persuasive thing in the film - I would have preferred the 'haunting' to be more inferred than made explicit. But this is bold stuff, tense, generally well acted, and very, very sad.

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